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Managing Holiday Season Stress

How to take care of yourself during the "Most Wonderful Time of the Year."

“It’s Christmas, and we’re all in misery.”

In National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Ellen Griswold announces this to her daughter as they manage the scrum and excitement of holiday guests, family tensions, and the re-emergence of bad habits. And truly, the holiday season is a time of excitement, with family coming together, delicious meals, and engaging in religious rituals. But it is also a period that, when in full swing, can cause anxiety, stress, disappointment, and sadness, all of which can trigger existing mental health and substance use challenges even among the most joyous revelers.

Here’s what to look for – and what to do – to take care of yourself and loved ones during this hectic season.

Common Reasons for Holiday Season Distress

Any period of heightened emotions is risky, but the grouping of Thanksgiving, Hanukah, Christmas, and New Year’s takes the cake (or the pumpkin pie). As we exchange gifts and raise a glass on New Year’s Eve, we remember good times – but also bad times. If it’s been a tough year, you or a loved one might have lost a family member, had a tough breakup, or experienced some trauma, that can be reawakened during a season of heightened merriment.

We can suffer from the compare-and-despair of seeing It’s A Wonderful Life’s supportive Bailey family, or A Christmas Story’s loving mom – while knowing that our holiday memories aren’t quite so rosy. And if we live far away from family and friends, acute loneliness can set in.

We may be overwhelmed at the notion of spending time with that homophobic aunt or mean-spirited grandparent. If we’re unemployed, it can hurt to not be able to give lavishly.

How to Protect Yourself

Create a support system: Identify peers, spiritual care providers, mental health service providers, friends, family, neighbors or others who can act as a source of support during difficult times. Make a list of their names and contact details. If possible, invite a support person to come along to any events or gatherings that you would like to attend, but are concerned may be difficult for you.

Predict stressful situations: The more you can predict situations or events that may be distressing during the holidays, the better you can plan to take care of yourself. While it may be important to you to push yourself to attend events with family, friends or colleagues, it is equally important for you to care for yourself mentally, emotionally and physically. Do not feel obligated to take part in things that will cause you unmanageable stress.

Be realistic with your expectations: If you have a strained, or conflicted relationship with family throughout the year, it is unrealistic to expect that these relationships will be more loving, supportive or connected during the holiday season. It is important to take good care of yourself and to prioritize what is truly important.

Create new rituals: If the usual holiday rituals that your family, friends or acquaintances take part in don’t serve you or are harmful to you, create your own. Choose to spend time doing things that make you feel good, and with people who are supportive and caring towards you.

Engage with spirituality: Places of worship can offer programs or services that provide you with a sense of connection and belonging and can offer you hope, inspiration and a sense of purpose and meaning. Choosing to spend time in nature, or working towards causes that are important to you may also bring a sense of spiritual comfort and peace.

Perform service for others: Helping others or volunteering may give you a sense of purpose and control, and provide you with opportunities to spend time in the company of others, working towards a common goal. This can be particularly helpful if the holiday season is a time of loneliness or disconnection.

Be open to new possibilities: Maybe this holiday season you will find a new, free activity, meet a new person or enjoy looking at decorations, sights and sounds. Look for positives and possibilities.

Things to Skip 

Alcohol and other substances: Excessive use of alcohol and other substances can aggravate feelings of depression, hopelessness, and being alone.

Isolation: If you are someone who needs to spend time alone, make sure that you are doing it in way that is caring and nurturing of yourself. Have you tried meditating? Journaling? Make sure that you find small, simple ways connect with others.

Ignoring your feelings: Pay attention to your feelings, don’t set them aside or diminish them. Speaking with family, friends or others helps to navigate feelings and develop alternative ways to view problems. It may surprise you how much others care and want to help, if only you let them know you are in distress.

Overspending: Decide on a budget and spend cash or use a debit card. Try not to use credit cards Future credit card bills with inflated interest will only lead to feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. 

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